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Danny Boyle Reflects on Shooting Amidst Real Dead Bodies on ‘Shallow Grave’ and Talks Budgeting at Academy Event

Danny Boyle Reflects on Shooting Amidst Real Dead Bodies on 'Shallow Grave' and Talks Budgeting at Academy Event

In anticipation of his latest release “Trance,” British filmmaker Danny Boyle sat down for a conversation at the Academy Theater in New York last week to reflect back on his hit debut, “Shallow Grave.” The charismatic filmmaker shared his gratitude with the academy for honoring him with a screening of the movie, which launched not just his career, but that of Ewan McGregor as well.  

From his beginnings, Boyle’s films have all shared the common theme of money. He attributed that fact to Jean-Luc Godard’s statement of only needing a girl and a gun to make a movie. Boyle joked that because in Britain guns aren’t readily available, he had to find a solution. “A girl and a bag of money is what we do,” he said. Below are the highlights from the night.

Boyle began by reflecting on first introducing “Shallow Grave” at Sundance.

I think we released it in ’94, and I remember coming to an amazing screening at Sundance actually and it was the first time I’d ever introduced the film — you know, where you stand up before an audience and you go and kind of have to say something. You have to come up with something witty and I remember just saying to them, “don’t try anything like this at home,” and they thought that was very funny and it went very well so thank God for that.

When asked about what he would change about “Shallow Grave” if he could…

Lots of things, seriously. We had a million quid and made it on celluloid. As you can see by the telephones, it was a different era. There were computers, but they were strange big fat things that sat in offices and stuff like that. We spent all our money on the set, the flat and we ran out of money by the end. The police scenes where the policemen come to interview them were all done right at the end of the movie on the last day, and we had no money left, so we sold off bits of the set and bits of the furniture because it was pretty cool furniture. We sold it off to members of the crew in order to buy more celluloid. Nobody would give us more money. Channel 4 said no forget it.

And it’s interesting watching it again; that scene at the end in the mortuary, where he gets pushed inside, that’s a real mortuary and there were real bodies in there and Chris Eccleston, said “I can’t do this, can’t go in there.” There were dead bodies in there so we had a bit of a crisis. Eventually we agreed that we’d put one of the prop guys in there so that when the door is closed and it goes dark he wouldn’t be alone with the dead. You can hear it in the soundtrack, when the door closes and the lights go off, you can hear this guy going, “it’s all right Chris,” very quietly.

On his reasoning for making movies on a limited budget.

We cap our budgets, nothing above 20 million dollars. You get more control. It’s very simple, you own all this. If you take 100 million dollars, you’ve got less control or its more of a battle to exercise that control. I find it liberating that when you’re trying to turn 100 million into 15 million, in that you’re trying to make it look like 100 million but have it cost 15 million. I love that discipline, it makes you very evangelical in the way you promote and sell the movie to the crew, when you’re asking them to do it without claiming overtime and you’re trying to persuade the actors to go a bit further with it. It becomes a mission all-together and I like that. I think it adds to a film.

On his long standing relationship with John Hodge, the writer for “Shallow Grave,” and Hodge’s humor.

John Hodge wrote “Shallow Grave,” he adapted “Trainspotting” and he wrote “Trance,” our new movie. When he was in this film, he was a doctor, a practicing doctor in emergency, and he was right through the making of this film and through “Trainspotting.” A lot of his friends came along to “Trainspotting” to advise us on injections and stuff like that ’cause it’s a drug movie. His sense of humor you can really feel it in the film. He told us these stories (and I have no idea about whether or not it’s the same here), but this was Scottish medicine at the time. They’d have these acronyms that they would communicate with so that they, the doctors and nurses, could convey information among themselves without the patient understanding. So they’d use like FLK for funny looking kid. The most extreme one, and this is the gods honest truth, he told us, was TFBUNDY. And it stood for totally fucked but unfortunately not dead yet. I couldn’t believe it when he told us. If you ever hear that TFBUNDY, when you’re in the hospital, you know you should make your peace with whomever you need to quite quickly.

Why a two week rehearsal process is important.

If you ask for one week, you wont get anywhere. What we use it for is… actors arrive in a bubble of their own because they’ve been in another movie and they’ve played a period character, or they’ve had an affair and I don’t know what they’ve been doing. But they arrive in a bubble and it’s a danger with films that they can stay in that bubble in your movie before they go on to the next movie. You’ve got to pop that bubble. That’s what we use the rehearsals for. We try to give them as many experiences as possible that saturate them in our film.

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